Thousands of them splashed ashore on the Gulf side of Dauphin Island on February 6, 1815, resplendent in red coats, laced pelisses and highland plaid. They were the officers and men of the British army only recently trounced by General Andrew Jackson’s multicultural force par excellence at New Orleans. Their overall commander, Vice-Admiral Alexander Inglis Cochrane, had not yet learned that the War of 1812 had officially ended by treaty the previous December and was determined to salvage something from his Louisiana disaster. To that end, he moved his forces east to Dauphin Island, quickly captured Fort Bowyer on Mobile Point (where Fort Morgan stands today) and made plans to take Mobile before attacking New Orleans overland. It was not to be. A Jamaican brig brought news of peace, and redcoats lined the beach cheering lustily that the whole bloody business was finally done. During the following weeks, they settled into an island idyll while their high command negotiated prisoner exchanges and waited for the treaty to be formalized.
Young men with time on their hands are capable of extraordinarily energetic and silly enterprises, and so it was with these Brits. Two decades later, John Henry Cooke, a former captain in the 43rd Light Infantry, warmly remembered the good-natured pinecone war that ensued with his comrades encamped among the pine trees. Given the British army’s rigid class distinctions, only the officers and subalterns took part, several dozen men in all from at least six regiments. They divided themselves into two forces, built forts and did battle using seven-inch-long pinecones that had been soaked in water. According to Cooke, these made formidable missiles, which “when thrown with force and exactitude, gave and left marks on the physiognomy of an ugly character.” He spoke from experience, “having received four black eyes at different times during the various onsets and skirmishes.”
Operating under the glorified title of Commander-in-chief, Cooke directed the 7th Fusiliers and his own regiment. He chose a natural circle of pines about 30 yards across as their fort site, and the men drove small saplings into the sand between the trees. They then wove smaller branches and vines between these uprights to make a wickerwork wall about seven feet high, stuck leafy branches into the wall’s exterior to give it a woodsy appearance and dug a wide, shallow ditch around the perimeter. Inside the circle, they pushed up a sand fire step, along which they stacked pinecones “after the manner of cannon balls on the ramparts of more scientific fortresses.” They could then stand atop this berm, with the wicker wall protecting them from the chest down, and rain pinecones on their foes. In the center of the enclosure were a fire pit, a rude table, some stumps for seats, a tent and a few huts. Over all fluttered a blue and white silk flag affixed to a stripped pine tree. At night, Cooke and his fellows relaxed their labors and gathered around the wooden table, feasting on oysters and making “merry over our cups, the great fire blazing brightly.” Their comfortable redoubt more resembled “the resort of banditti, ” he chuckled, rather “than the abode of officers once so starched, stiff, and erect on England’s parade-ground.” He dubbed it Fort Anselmo.
Three hundred yards distant beneath a yellow and green banner stood the similarly constructed Fort Impracticable, occupied by the 85th and 40th Regiments of Foot, the 95th Rifles and 93rd Highlanders. Behind their bastion stretched a shady allée known as Pall Mall, “after the famous lounging street of that name in England’s overgrown metropolis.” The men of Fort Impracticable jealously guarded this asset, not least because the women who had accompanied the fleet — a few wives and eligible daughters — liked to congregate there. Not surprisingly, it was at Pall Mall that the war began.
In an effort to negotiate equal access to the thoroughfare, Cooke sent forward “some of our light troops.” They bumped into a party from the 85th, and after brief “parleying, ” the situation deteriorated. Cooke quoted with great delight from the battlefield dispatches he had received during the pinecone war, which read exactly like the formal military reports of the day penned under far more serious circumstances. “Sir, ” began one after this initial scuffle, “I beg leave to report to your Excellency the particulars of the action with the enemy this morning before your arrival.” According to the dispatch writer, the enemy soldiers were well supplied with pinecones in canvas haversacks and “advanced to attack us. We allowed them to come close to us before we opened fire, which did great execution in the enemy’s ranks.” Cooke’s men followed their barrage with a charge, laughing and throwing cones, “and the enemy gave way in every direction.”
After that brief battle, each side improved its fort and launched various attacks and sorties. Cooke led one such assault against Fort Impracticable “with the united forces of the royal fusileers and the officers of the dismounted squadron of the fourteenth light dragoons.” His men were surprised by a regiment that had not theretofore issued a formal “declaration of war” and were driven back under a perfect shower of cones. This was the height of bad form, and Cooke sent a note demanding advance warning of any future attacks. The “military secretary” of the 85th arrogantly responded, “It is our fixed determination to attack at any moment after the stipulated hour which may suit our convenience; and the only weapon with which we shall expect to meet is the pine-apple.”
In March, Vice-Adm. Cochrane finally announced their departure from American shores. Cooke sadly wrote that “our petty warfare was now about to finish.” It had all been great fun, even if not completely harmless. Despite “sorely battered heads, ” Cooke swore that he “did not know of a single instance of any angry feeling or an ill word having passed between the champions of either side.” And so they hove away in their warships and transports, those hardened men who had fought from Salamanca, Spain, to the Plains of Gentilly. But as their Dauphin Island pinecone war proved, they were still little boys at heart.
John S. Sledge is currently at work on “Coursing the Furrowed Blue: A Maritime History of the Gulf.”
text by John S. Sledge • illustrations by Colleen Comer